Harvey Milk Festival wants to connect you with your ‘inner activist’

Harvey Milk Festival President Shannon Fortner, with her band, MeteorEYES
Harvey Milk Festival President Shannon Fortner, with the band she fronts, MeteorEYES

This week’s Harvey Milk Festival might sound like any other arts and culture get-together. There will be a film screening Thursday night, an art show Friday evening and a stacked music lineup Saturday afternoon.

But that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. The festival, now in its fourth year, honors the life and work of its namesake, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. In doing so, it is trying to force a new generation to stand up to support marriage equality and shout down intolerance.

“This is a call to action,” says festival President Shannon Fortner. “This is the movement that’s happening right now.” Even as state after state approves marriage equality, LGBT friends and allies can’t grow complacent. “We can’t rely on, ‘Well, so-and-so’s got it,'” says Fortner. “It should be everyone coming together and saying, ‘We got this.'”

One art installation Saturday will give festival attendees that opportunity. Fortner calls it the “soapbox project.” Participants will watch and listen to classic Milk speeches, then “connect with their inner activist” and step onto a literal soapbox to speak their minds. The results will be videotaped and compiled later.

The festival also wants supporters to contact Congress. As Washington starts negotiating the details of comprehensive immigration reform, the festival is urging folks to press elected officials to include protections for LGBT relationships in any law passed. It’s an under-reported issue, and one that directly affects Fortner, whose wife lives in the U.K. and can stay in the States for only 90 days at a time.

Right now, all the money generated by the festival — which has broken even each year — is plowed back into the free event, but, having won 501(c)(3) status last year, the all-volunteer festival board wants to expand its involvement with other local nonprofits. The organization received $5,000 from Visit Sarasota County and has teamed up with groups such as ALSO Out Youth and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Fortner floats the idea of an LGBT scholarship program as one possible future endeavor.

“We keep trying to grow,” says Fortner. Indeed what was once a gathering in a vacant lot in the Rosemary District has moved up in the world, to Five Points Park, with the film screening held at Burns Court Cinema and the art show at MillerBrady Fine Art. Fortner says the festival will always “keep evolving.”

Saturday’s music bonanza remains the cornerstone of the festival, with nine acts scheduled to perform. Some are local (such as the band Fortner fronts, MeteorEYES), some are from the Tampa area and some are from as far away as Brooklyn and Tennessee. The show kicks off at 4 p.m. and runs till midnight. In between acts, guest speakers will step on-stage, and there will be a candlelight vigil in honor of Milk at 8:30. Fortner says that moment is intended as a reminder that yes, we’re here to have fun, but there’s a bigger purpose, too.

One of the festival’s big needs going forward? Year-round leadership. The small board has built a thriving annual event, but Fortner wants more people involved. Her big message to attendees this year: “We need their help.”

She’s here to recruit you.

The Harvey Milk Festival runs May 16-18:

  • 9:30 p.m. Thursday, May 16: I Am Divine film screening, Burns Court Cinema, 506 Burns Lane, Sarasota, $10.
  • 7 to 11 p.m. Friday, May 17: Beyond Bullying art show, MillerBrady Fine Art, 614 Florida Ave., Sarasota, free.
  • 4 p.m. to midnight Saturday, May 18: Music festival, Five Points Park, North Pineapple Avenue and First Street, Sarasota, free.

Visit harveymilkfestival.com for all the details.